Discovering the suggestive Marrakech (Morocco), surrounded by Atlas Mountains, the desert and the ocean at less than 200 km
For those who did not have yet the pleasure to discover Marrakech, these are many of the features that represent the fourth city of Morocco. Surrounded by the Atlas Mountains, the desert and the ocean, the geographical location of Marrakech, which counts more than one million of inhabitants, makes it very touristy and evocative.
What I got curious about, and represented a must see, because far from collective imagination, were the souk, which can be defined, with an extreme oversimplification, stalls. But certainly they are very different and unique than those we are used to in Europe. The first step is to head indeed toward the souks, in the heart of the main square, Jemaa el-Fna. Here, street performances, open-air theater and musical shows take place every day, from morning until late night, and they cleverly entertain the many tourists who pass through the square.
The monkeys are especially fancy, one of them dressed up with a red Christmas dress (so as to make it memorable), who grasp (actually launched by their owner) on the tourist’s shoulder, who are, then, asked to pay handsomely for the taken picture. Picture which, often, the tourist does not want, but, instead, refuses. Unfortunately the city is full (or should I say plagued?) of people who are looking for easy money.
The atmosphere is, even if not dangerous, a reason of stress, especially in the souk – if from the beginning you don’t know that anyone approaching you with seemingly offering a kind help, and talking to you in your native language (understood by just looking at you), does it to gain something in return. That “something” is called money; they decide the tip you have to give them otherwise they don’t ever let you go. If you want to avoid that, do not show the maps with nonchalance and try not to start a conversation with those who come to your “rescue”. The curiosity to stroll in the souks is gone soon. By the way, they are absolutely the most folksy area of the city. Do not lose the opportunity to visit them!
In the evening in Jemaa el-Fna square, it is possible to eat something typical at the stands set up one beside the other, and even in this case the competition is fierce but, keeping in mind the experience in the souks, I chose the kiosk that screamed less.
From the square, it is clearly visible the mosque Koutoubia from which, five times per day, the adhan (call to prayer) echoes. This moment of the day is greeted with extreme respect by Moroccans, who, following the precept, stop all the activities that are going on – above all by turning off the music or avoiding noises. Unfortunately, the access to non-Muslim is not allowed, same for the others mosques of the city. Marrakech is, moreover, formed by a Jewish ghetto, whose synagogue is, instead, open to the public.
The old city is the richest area for monuments, among which stands out Medersa Ali ben Youssed, a Koranic school built in the XIV century. Considered the biggest of North Africa, it is one of the most beautiful thanks to zelliges’ decorations – ceramic tiles in five colors, which refers to the Spanish-Moorish style that is often found in Moroccan museums. Contemporary art gallery, as well as Marrakech pasha’s residence, the Museum of Marrakech displays, instead, art objects and handicraft, in particular Rabat needleworks, daggers inlaid with jewelry and ceramics.
Marrakech presents also many ancient buildings, amongst which Palais de la Bahia and Palais de Badi. The first one is the harem of vizir Bou Ahmed, that hosted his 4 spouses and 24 concubines. The apartments of his favorite, Lalla Zineb, are decorated with glasses, marquetry and ceilings painted with roses bouquet. The second one, which hosts the Festival of popular arts in the summer, holds up since XVI century, when it was built by the sultan Ahmed el-Mansour.
Marrakech is warm and colorful also thanks to the gardens; the two most symbolic ones are Jardin Majorelle and Jardin de la Menara, located in the “new city”, which is very different from the chaotic “old town”. Here, you can breathe a sense of “westernization” and feel more free to stroll around than in the souks and anywhere near. Jardin Majorelle was built in 1920 and was reacquired by designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in 1980. Thanks to the help of botanist Abderrazak Benchaâbane, the garden includes 300 species of plants coming from the five continents. To honor the designer, who died in 2008, his partner created, then, the Foundation that carries their name.
Jardin de la Menara, built in the Twelfth century, had an important role for the irrigation of the city thanks to its artificial lake, which irrigated the gardens and the surrounding orchards through the clever system of underground canals called qanat. The artificial lake is refilled with water thanks to an old hydraulic system which transports the water from the mountains, around 30 km away from Marrakech.
Don’t forget to visit the Museum of Photography where, besides the wonderful collection of photographs of 1850-1950, you can admire the panorama of the city on the roof-terrace (roof-terraces where it is possible to drink the typical mint tea and enjoy the view are very numerous) and the saadian tombs, where you can admire the Carrara marbles of which are covered, following sultan Ahmed el-Mansour el-Dahbi’s desire.
If you stay more than 3 days, do not miss a tour in the surroundings. Among the various possibilities, Essaouira is one of them. The white and blue town faces the Atlantic coast and during the winter it is beautiful to see the waves of the sea, which crashes against the rocks. The smell of the sea and the synchronized flight of the seagulls make it special and romantic. You will fall in love with it immediately.
This multifaceted country is a must see for its originality, the fresh fish you can taste in the restaurants at a cheap price and the humility with which people lives, that always reminds you how much lucky you are.